Unplanned Retirement: Tips to finding a new balance when life takes a detour

– Posted in: Adaptability, Emotional Intelligence, General, Positive Outlook, Self-Awareness, Social Intelligence
Tobago Cays Sunrise_320

In retirement, as in much of the major life changes — starting a career, getting married, becoming a parent — there is no manual.

Planning retirement, even an early retirement, and being ready when the time comes, makes adjusting from one phase of life to another a bit smoother.

But what happens when there is no time to plan?

This happened to Jan, who was offered an early retirement from her role as project manager for a large IT services company. Jan didn’t expect this option, but when it was offered, she said yes and in three weeks she went from super-busy full-time PM to not-so-busy retiree.

Here is her story, the emotions of the journey, and few tips to understand the process.

Energetic. Vibrant. Happy.

These are the three words that come to mind when I think back to my first impressions of meeting Jan, at a local Project Management Chapter Meeting in Whitby, Ontario earlier this year. Jan is pretty, a very young 60-ish professional, who exudes energy and life.   At our table, as we introduced ourselves, Jan said she’s been retired 2 years however, she has some suggestions for people who are thinking of doing the same thing.

I was curious what those insights were, so we met later for an interview. These are her tips for anyone who is choosing to retire earlier than planned.

Jan’s retrospective:

  1. Plan for you, not just for work. Ideally, plan before you retire.   Although Jan had three weeks of notice, her number one focus was on leaving things at work in good shape – “doing all the right things” before she left. To this end, she stayed working until 6:30pm her last Friday, not even having enough time to take her personal files off her PC, which she kept over the weekend, and later returned during her first week of retirement. Dedication to doing things well is something many of us know about. As a result, Jan didn’t think much about herself in those last three weeks, and what she was going to do once her “date” came up on the calendar.
  2. Perspective. “We’re not saving babies” a colleague of Jan told her well before retirement came along. Recognizing this helped Jan see that when you work for a big company- your absence won’t impact the people and projects left behind as much as it’s going to impact you. Knowing this helps puts things into perspective, and not “over-commit” at work.
  3. Don’t rush yourself. Live in the present moment. Take a breather. Don’t be so hard on yourself to know what’s next. Jan remembers people asking her what her plans were – and feeling stressed that she didn’t know that answer. Take at least a couple of months to adjust before taking on something else, even a big trip somewhere. Just be in the present moment. Jan was exhausted after going at full speed and then coming to a full stop. Taking a few months off to formulate a plan is a great way to adjust to a different pace of life. Take it easy. Winslow Corner_640
  4. Significant Other. Jan’s husband was retired already for two years and had found his new balance. Jan’s retirement caused another adjustment for both of them. Be ready for that and to give space for both partners.
  5. Friends. Peer groups are important to feeling connected. Working peers and retirees may no longer connect. Jan found that some connections you had as a working employee will filter out, and get dropped, as you switch to role of retiree. Expect some relationships to end naturally. That might leave a void and Jan reached out to a retirement group by attending a monthly retiree breakfast. She didn’t fit in as much as a young and newbie retiree, and ended up connecting with a couple of other retirees her same age with similar interests. She met these women at that breakfast, so going out in the first place was what connected her to others. They’ve since attracted other friends, and now they meet once a month and have created their own breakfast brunch group. This is an important social part of Jan’s life now.
  6. What do I want? Coming out of a sandwich generation, you get to the end of the day and you ask yourself, “What do I want to do”? If you find yourself with the freedom to focus on your own needs and desires, you may not have an answer right away when you’ve been focused on taking care of kids or aging parents. Jan took time to try things out. One cake decorating course was enough to know that wasn’t the answer. She tried painting, and pottery. Jan did find enjoyment in Zumba and yoga and has taken up golf as well.  Her advice: take time to pursue interests. Some may not work out, and others may open up to a lot of enjoyment.
  7. Declutter. Some of the extra time Jan had was spent on decluttering – finally having the time to sort through what was no longer needed. This felt like perfect thing to do at this transition stage.
  8. Mixed Feelings. Be ready for mixed feelings when you lose your “work” identity. It’s a mental and emotional transition that can feel sad at times and happy at times.
  9. Financial adjusting. Take time to understand financially what retirement means and how things change.
  10. Home duties. Throughout a marriage where both partners worked, more of the home duties fell towards Jan. At retirement, it may mean these duties get reassessed between partners.

What’s next?

For Jan, even two years later, what’s next is to continue much of the advice above – stay in the present moment, make adjustments, and try things out to understand what she really wants.

It may be working part-time but in something different than project management – software programming or BA work.

But time and choice are what’s different now and Jan is taking full advantage of both to purposely choose how she’ll define her ideal balance in this new stage of life.

The Change Cycle

Martha Beck Change Cycle_640As Jan and I wrapped up the interview, I drew a picture of the four squares of The Change Cycle on a piece of paper and discussed with Jan how when major change happens to us -whether by surprise, or by design, there are stages we go through. As she said – we undergo both mental and emotional changes.

  • First there is Square One: Death and Rebirth – this is where we adjust to our new identity and get used to saying good-bye to the old one. This is is a stage to be mindful, and practice emotional self-awareness.  Going slow and paying attention, resting, taking that “time out” that Jan mentioned and becoming aware of those mixed feelings.  This square helps connect you back to your values and your “why” and redefine success if you need to.
    The mantra for this square is aptly:  “I don’t know what the hell is going on, and that’s okay.”
  • Square Two: Dreaming and Scheming, can feel downright fun and exciting as you explore ideas. This is where you ask “What do I want?” and start to declutter.
    The mantra here is “There are no rules, and that’s okay.”
  • Square Three: The Hero’s Saga is all about trying and failing until you get it right.  Jan went out to a retiree breakfast, and tried new hobbies. She kept at it until things worked out.
    The mantra here is “This is harder than I thought, and that’s okay.”
  • Square Four: The Promised Land is about smooth sailing more or less as you find your groove.  You’re adapting easily.
    The mantra here is “Everything is changing, and that’s okay.”

Square Four is where Jan is in her retirement after two years.  If she moves into taking on a part-time role as a software programmer or BA, then she might just go right back into Square One and the cycle starts again.  But this is how it is with everything — when  you enter high school, when a new job starts, when the kids are born, when you become an empty-nester, and so on.

The Change Cycle may be the best manual when it comes to dealing with a major life detour.

The good news?

Square 4 is always waiting, and if you find yourself there, enjoy it.

If you’re in Square 1, 2, or 3 however, and would like to explore how you navigate, move onto the next square, and find your balance, setup a complimentary coaching call.   Sometimes just understanding this cycle helps alleviate the stress of being in it.



1. Sunrise at Tobago Keys, Moorings Charter, 2002

2. Standing on THE corner in Winslow Arizona, RV adventure of 2010

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